A Rogue at Stonecliffe
Sloane stopped a few feet away. It would be dangerous to get too close. “Remember those dances at the Assembly Hall? How we’d meet on the terrace to escape all the eyes? So we could talk and—”
“I am well aware of what we did,” Annabeth interrupted sharply.
Of course she remembered. The heat, the urgency, the stolen kisses, hanging on to their control by the thinnest of threads. Sloane shoved his hands into his pockets to keep himself from reaching out to touch her.
He took a step forward. Inside the ballroom, a waltz started. Annabeth looked away, but not before Sloane could see the way her face changed, remembered pleasure and regret mingling in her eyes. It was an old song, and they had danced to it often.
“Remember how you taught me to waltz?” He moved closer. “You would hum this song.”
Annabeth still kept her gaze away from him, but she nodded slightly.
He pulled his hands from his pockets—those were clearly not restraint enough; perhaps with Annabeth, he required manacles—and held them out to her. “Dance with me, Anna? Just once. For old times’ sake.”
She looked up at him then. Unshed tears glimmered in her eyes, making his heart squeeze within his chest. She put her hand in his, and he swept her into the waltz. They circled the terrace, alone in the hushed night, moving as if in a world apart, a moment filled with sweetness and regret and the beauty of a time long gone. It would never return, but for now, this was enough to fill the emptiness.
All too soon, the music wound to a halt. They turned one last time and stopped. They were only inches apart; Sloane could feel the heat of Annabeth’s body, see nothing but her. The scent of perfume filled his nostrils, sweet and intoxicating. He lowered his head toward hers, leaning in, and she began to stretch her body upward toward him.
Annabeth drew in a sharp little breath and whirled away, putting several feet between them. “What do you want from me? Why are you here, Sloane? Why do you keep popping up everywhere I go like some overgrown jack-in-the-box?”
She was right, of course. She always had been—ever the more cautious, reasonable one. Looking before she leaped. He had let his head overrule his heart only once. He forced himself to stay where he was, though everything in him told him to follow her and sweep her back in his arms.
“I beg your pardon,” Sloane said stiffly. “That was wrong of me.” If only his body would agree. “I came here because I think you could be in danger.”
Annabeth’s jaw dropped. “In danger? Of what? If you’re going to tell me that I shouldn’t marry Nathan, I—”
“No.” He brushed the idea aside. “You’re in no danger from Nathan…except perhaps being bored to death.”
“Sloane…” Annabeth crossed her arms, her eyes narrowing.
“I’m saying that someone might hurt you. Kidnap you. You’re in danger. You and Lady Lockwood need to leave for a while, at least the next fortnight. You could go to Bath, say. Lady Lockwood would like that.”
“I have no interest in going to Bath.”
“Another place then. It doesn’t matter where. This city is dangerous. You have to leave London.”
“I don’t have to do anything, least of all something you demand. I’ll do as I please.”
“So you plan to expose yourself to danger just because I don’t want you to? Damn it, Annabeth, I can’t protect you well enough here in the city.”
“Protect me? You gave up any right to protect me long ago when you ran away.”
“I didn’t run away.”
“Very well. When you walked away after you jilted me.”
Sloane clamped his teeth together to hold back the rage that threated to roar out of him. None of this was her fault. Even when it tore his heart out of his chest, it had never been her fault. He pushed down on the pointless, distracting emotions inside him; perhaps his layers of insulation were not as thick as he had thought.
His voice was calm as he began again. “It is my responsibility to make sure you come to no harm because it is my enemy who threatens you. There is a man who is trying to take over the docks, and I stand in his way. He has attacked my businesses in many small ways, and today he went so far as to burn down one of my warehouses. One of my employees was inside and could have burned to death. He’s growing worse with each attack he throws against me. I will stop him, I promise you. But it may take me some time. And that is why I want you out of the city. I’ve already told my father to go back to Cornwall.”
Annabeth frowned. “He sounds like a terrible man. But I still don’t understand. Why would he try to do anything to me?”
“Because you are the one person I would do anything to keep from harm,” he shot back.
Annabeth stared at him, the air between them suddenly charged with emotion. Sloane took a step forward, reaching instinctively for her, but she backed away from him. Her hands clenched into fists at her side. “What are you playing at, Sloane? Why are you pretending that I mean something to you? That you care what happens to me?”
“Of course I care about you. I’ve always cared about you.” His temper was rising again. “How could you think—”
“If you had loved me, you wouldn’t have left me!”
“I had to leave you! I had no choice!” He realized that he was slipping into dangerous territory. “I could not make you a smuggler’s wife. It would have ruined you, damaged your family, made your life miserable. I wanted you to have a better life than I could provide for you.”
“You decided. You thought it was best. You thought only of yourself and what you wanted. You never asked me what I wanted.”
“And what was that? For me to stay at home, being the Rutherfords’ poor relation, beholden to my uncle for my education, for everything I had, an ordinary drone working for a family that pitied me? That was what you wanted?”
“What I wanted was you!” Her words vibrated between them, and for an instant neither of them could move or speak.
Then she shook her head and stepped back, saying in a calmer voice, “I was young and very foolish. I didn’t heed anyone’s warnings. But I learned my lesson where you are concerned. The love I held for you died long ago, and whatever you are trying to do, I want no part of it. Just…stay away from me Sloane. I don’t ever want to see you again.”
She whirled and rushed back into the house.